Women in Law: A History of Double Standards

(By Alex Tran, Queen’s University)


The politics of gender has been a hot topic of debate for decades on end. Traditionally, women and men have both been defined by gender ideologies, which attribute certain traits and professions to either of the two genders. Gender ideologies are known to have influenced (and still do) the profession of law, as recent studies have shown that women are undeniably faced with an unfair disadvantage. Men have historically dominated the field of law, and even now, female lawyers earn noticeably smaller sums than their male counterparts. Not more than a mere century ago, female lawyers of the Western world were considered a rarity. It was a widely accepted fact that nearly every lawyer was a man.

Professor of Sociology, Bill Robinson highlights a modern day paradox in his paper titled Advancement of Women Lawyers. He states that while nearly half of law school students in the United States are women, females only number a third of all lawyers, twenty two percent of the federal judiciary, and twenty six percent of the state judges. In law firms, women comprise forty five percent of the membership, but less than twenty reach equity partnership. These numbers are even smaller in the two hundred largest law firms in the world. Not only are women outnumbered by men in higher-echelon positions in general, but are paid less in almost all cases. These figures, while not quite as dismal as they were sixty years ago, are still fall short of acceptable. However, the most shocking point that Robson mentions is actually the growing number of women quitting the practice of law. He notes that the lack of representation and lower salaries have led to an overall reduction in the ranks of women in the field of law due to lack of job satisfaction. For the first time since 2006, the number of women entering large-firm practices has decreased (Robinson 2012: 8). The lack of numbers, and lower salaries of female lawyers is proof that the field of law is still somewhat reluctant to accept women into higher ranks. Attorney Jennifer L. Parent notes that women now constitute nineteen percent of equity partnership in the private practice sector as opposed to twelve percent in 1993. Women are paid eighty eight percent of male payment in equity partnership, and ninety two percent in 2009. The latter is a marked improvement from eighty four percent in 2006. Regardless, more progressive improvements must be made.

In Canada, as with the majority of western nations, women were initially at a disadvantage. A large part of this was due to the fact that powerful individuals in the field considered them ineligible to take on positions as lawyers. The first female member of the law society was admitted in 1892, and was allowed to be a barrister in 1895. Barriers formally restricting women were not lifted until 1942. Yet, Kay and Brockman argue that the unofficial barriers still exist today (Kay and Brockman 2003: 50-60). In 1990, and 1996 Kay studied approximately 1600 to 2300 female lawyers in Quebec. She discovered that regardless of their experience, women would always have less of a chance to attain a coveted partnership position than men. Yet the most troubling piece of evidence found by Kay and Brockman is that female associates must perform extraordinary acts such as actively recruiting new clients and building a large network of co-corporate clientele despite being paid less than their male counterparts in order to maintain their positions.

The reason why women struggle in the field of law is because they are facing an age-old stigma against females in high echelon positions. In his work, Elite Careers and Family Commitment Scott Coltrane makes a reference to the Victorian era and makes note of “Victorian ideals”. These ideals refer to separate spheres and other degrees and practices (Coltrane 2004: 214). Although much has changed from the 1970s to 2004, the ideal professional worker is still a man with a stay-at home wife who fulfills his duties by being the breadwinner. To rise in the ranks of a profession, one must devote considerable amounts of time and emotional energy to the profession. Making these commitments and maintaining a family presence is apparently a fundamental near-impossible task for a woman (Coltrane 2004: 215). One would wonder why men are not held up to the same standard as women are regardless of their family situation. Men are encouraged to marry, build a family, and support them. The family man is not ‘hindered’ by his commitments and the maintenance of his family presence. It may not seem logical, until Coltrane points out that the double standard stems from the aforementioned Victorian cultural ideals which state that men are assumed to be breadwinners, and women assumed to be homemakers (Coltrane 2004: 216). The Victorian Ideals stated by Coltrane are influenced by views of women from older periods of time, going centuries before the Victorian Era.

In retrospect, even though there has been progress made in the contemporary period as opposed to decades such as 1970s, there are still issues facing female lawyers that persist to this very day. The effects and long-term influence of centuries of patriarchal legal systems still act as a greater challenge for female barristers than one might initially believe. This issue of a glass ceiling effect is not a matter that will simply fade away in a short amount of time. Despite the difficulties women face, the statistics show that improvement will gradually continue. The pace and timing of these improvements, however, remain ambiguous.


Alex Tran